On Root / Endings, Beginnings, and the Spaces in Between

Jeremy Benstein
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Jeremy Benstein

In honor of Simchat Torah, the Festival of the Torah, when the annual reading of the Pentateuch is completed and immediately begins again, our word of the week is parashah. And to understand the following joke, you have to know that parashah means both the traditional "weekly Torah portion," but also more contemporarily: "affair, case, episode," even "scandal."

A woman approached one of Israel's recent prime ministers (it doesn't matter which one) and kissed his sleeve, saying: "Mr. Prime Minister, you are for me like a sefer Torah, a 'scroll of the Torah'" (that it is customary to kiss when paraded around the synagogue). Quite pleased, thinking he was receiving the highest compliment, he asked her what aroused in her that lovely image. She replied: "Well, just like the Torah – with you it's a new parashah every week!"

Parting of the ways

The root of parashah, p-r-sh, has a basic meaning of "separate" or "distinguish (from)." Each weekly parashah, portion, in the Torah is separated from the ones before and after by special spacing, making it a distinct unit. But since it is also a literary unit, it has come to mean the story that was told in that week's portion, and thus also: episode or affair.

A different kind of parashah is parashat mayim, which is not a water incident but rather a watershed." Likewise, parashat derachim is a crossroads, where two or more paths diverge. The massive six-way interchange at Tel Aviv's Arlosoroff train station on the border of Ramat Gan, for example, is aptly named Al Parashat Derachim, a reference to Ahad Ha'am's famous book of the same name featuring essays about the historical juncture of the Jewish people and cultural Zionism.

The verbal form, parash (infinitive: lifrosh, the "p" and "f" alternating) refers to "separating oneself, "withdrawing," "dropping out" or "stepping down" from a position. For example, gil haprisha is "retirement age." The causative hifrish (noun: hafrashah) can refer to the allocation of funds (money set aside) but in regards to other liquid assets of a more bodily nature, the action is more accurately translated as "discharge" or "secrete."

Politically, lifrosh can also mean "seceding" from some group. There's a well-known dictum from the Talmudic text, "Ethics of the Fathers," that says: al tifrosh min hatzibbur – "Don't break away from the community."

Actually, English speakers know this word from its use in Western languages in the form of "Pharisees," from the Hebrew, "p'rushim." They were the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism as we know it, from late Second Temple times. What's the connection? One possibility is that p'rushim means the "abstemious ones," due to their emphasis on abstention, or separation, from licentiousness or ritual impurity.

Another is that the p'rushim were "separatists" who established their own spiritual and ritual authority over more worldly, more mainstream sects of their time through the interpretation and spread of the Oral Law.

From dissent to commentary

But there is a third possibility, connected to an ostensibly different root that also has the letters p-r-sh. Readers who know Hebrew may be wondering how we've gone this far without mentioning parshanut, i.e. "commentary".

What could be more obvious than the connection between parashat hashavu'a, the weekly portion, and what the mefarshim, "commentators," have to say about it?

The third interpretation of the name Pharisee, p'rushim, is indeed that they were the ones who engaged in interpretation, both legal and literary, of their own authoritative oral commentary, and thus proffered many perushim, elucidations.

The two roots, though, p-r-sh – "separate" and p-r-sh – "clarify" are probably not related. There's even a third homonymous root that gives us parash, "horseman," which is both the name of the knight on the chessboard, and "cavalry." This one, though, is related to the Arabic faris, horse – clearly one of a different color.

From the roots of clarify" we also come to meforash, which means "explicit". We still have commentators today, those who give their opinions on sports, politics, or film - who are called parshanim in modern Hebrew.

Roll the scroll - the rest is commentary

It was the Pharisees, their cohorts and descendents, who decided on the order of the reading of the Torah, whose ending and re-beginning we mark this week.
One of their most famous teachers, Hillel the Elder, when asked to define this Torah, as we would say it today "in 25 words or less," famously replied that the entire Torah can be summed up with: "What is hateful to you, don't due to your fellow."

What's all the rest of those five weighty tomes? Veidach perushah hu - "it's commentary" – go and learn it.

There are a few dozen parashot, the same ones read anew every year, but a lifetime's worth of parshanut, and all can give their own perushim.

Next week: The connections between "tradition" and "SMS." It's all in the text(ing). Or is it?

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Add your comments here, or write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Every week there's a new "parashah".Credit: Eran Wolkowsky